SERENDIPITY has been a constant in Raymond Quah's life. The 44-year-old former advertising executive from Kuantan, Malaysia never planned to stay in Singapore after his month-long internship in 1994. Yet, 18 years later, he's still here, married to a Singaporean and with two children.
Quah is founder of furniture and lifestyle emporium Pomelo Home, which began as a passion project in 2007. From their walk-up apartment in Tanjong Katong, Quah and his wife, Karina, peddled living and dining room sets by American brands Blu Dot, Modernica and Emeco, which weren't available locally. It was something the pair indulged in as a weekend hobby, and was never intended to become a full-fledged business.
Of course, life has a way of foiling the best-laid plans. A chance encounter with a chef friend who was starting restaurant Soori in Tanjong Pagar led to the discovery of an adjacent shophouse unit that had come up for lease. Without much hesitation, Quah quit his full-time job as creative director at an advertising firm and plunged into his business full-time.
"We jumped the gun a little bit," admits the affable entrepreneur over coffee in his Tanjong Pagar showroom (the company has since moved to larger premises at Outram's Tan Boon Liat Building). "We hadn't secured enough distributorships yet. In the first six months, I had a showroom with maybe five pieces of furniture. My landlord was very upset. He thought he was going to get a very nice showroom!"
Determined to succeed, Quah worked on expanding his repertoire of brands, most of which were hitherto unheard of in Singapore. He soon became the exclusive distributor of British brands such as Established & Sons, Case Furniture and Benchmark — the former a cult label and favourite among the design-savvy. By offering American and British brands in a market dominated by Italian and Asian manufacturers, Pomelo Home attracted a niche audience.
"They are not meant to have mass appeal. Take Established & Sons. You need a crowd that appreciates design, the designer or the process that goes into it. Most of my business is retail-based, but we've done a couple of contract projects. There was never any intention to go one way or another. We'll take a sale wherever it comes from. Last year [FY2011 ended April 2012], we did about half a million dollars in sales. By this time next year, we'll be GST-registered," he says optimistically.
Though spurred on by his relative success, Quah maintains that business viability and solvency trump profit-making. "In order to retain the distributorship of our brands, we need to move volume, so we sacrifice high profit margins. Indeed, industry professionals like interior designer Terence Chan of Studio Terre notes that Pomelo Home's markups are among the lowest in Singapore.
When told of this, Quah offers: "I don't think you can build a long-term business by gouging customers on price. Thanks to the democracy of the Internet, savvy consumers today know what these things cost overseas. It's no secret. But we do have to make enough to cover business costs, provide a nice showroom experience for customers to browse, bring new brands in and to earn a modest living to sustain this business. You offer what you think is a product of value, make it available at a reasonable price, and let the market decide.
"I can assign a price to a piece of furniture, but the actual 'worth' of that piece is decided in the consumer's head. The price tag only tells you how much it costs, the value of the object is already set in their mind — and it's something that's completely subjective. It's like how it is with watches, which run the gamut from the S$3 digital variety to S$300,000 tourbillons. Functionally, they all tell time. But depending on your frame of reference beyond this pure functionality, the 'value' you place on a watch can be anywhere along the entire spectrum.
"Consider Established & Sons' WrongWoods series, for example. I could tell you about the design; Richard Woods, the artist whose designs adorn it; or the process, in which every surface is block-printed and finished by hand. But do these things justify the cost or make it 'worth' the price tag? The answer depends on the customers' values and perceived worth, and there's no right or wrong. I can't impose my values on anyone. I can only bring in brands and pieces that resonate with me personally, and hope others will like them too."
Quah's design sensibilities were shaped during the 18 years he spent in advertising. Working on campaigns for global clients that included Nokia, Heineken, Hewlett-Packard, Procter & Gamble and BMW, magazines such as Wallpaper and Surface became his standard references. He also attributes his attraction to beautiful objects as a response to growing up surrounded by "cheap, ugly furniture" in his family home. "My parents are from that generation that didn't spend money on furniture," he explains.
A quick glance around the showroom reveals that Quah's aesthetics have been honed to a T. There are vibrant rugs from award-winning designer Emma Gardner underfoot and George Nelson's elegant, sculptural Bubble lamps overhead. Modern American classics such as Cherner chairs sit cheek-by-jowl with radical consoles from Established & Sons and innovative wire pieces from LA-based label Bend.
Exactly how does the proprietor of a modern furniture showroom define good design? "[Industrial designer] Dieter Rams has already come up with a pretty bulletproof definition, and it'd be foolish — not to mention totally unnecessary — to come up with one myself. I subscribe to his principles of design wholeheartedly: [Good design] has to be functional, innovative, honest, long-lasting and eco-friendly."
And as for his favourite pieces, Quah cites Paul Kjaerholm's PK 25 chair, Emeco's Navy chair — "They're comfortable, they'll last you 150 years, they don't rust, there's nothing to reupholster, nothing to repair, ever"— and George Nelson's Bubble lamps — "The design is as simple as it gets".
Aaron De Silva enjoys experiencing the world and relishes writing about it afterwards. This story appeared in The Edge Singapore on Oct 8, 2012.